A flock of geese were seen approaching from the eastward, and La Salle, cautioning the boys, crouched down in his boat and "called." Peter followed suit, and so did the party on the bergs. The flock swung within a hundred yards of Peter, who held his fire, and then, seeing the floating decoys, swung round to leeward of them, and setting their wings, scaled slowly in, passing within about two hundred and fifty yards of the party on the berg.
Of course they opened fire at once, with shot of all sorts and sizes, doing no execution but sending a bullet from one of their guns straight over the heads of La Salle and his friends. A flock or two of ducks and brent made similar attempts to alight, but every shot was spoiled in the same way.
La Salle was indignant, and the boys were at a white heat, when, without any birds being between them, the report of a heavily charged gun was heard, and a few heavy shot struck the ice near the boats, while the drunken crowd yelled in triumph as the water, by its ripples, showed the great distance attained by the shot.
"I'll shoot, too, the next chance, and so may you, boys. Elevate well, and fire when the birds are between us and the berg," said La Salle.
It was not long before three geese attempted to scale in as the others had done, and were fired at as before, the bullet this time striking the water in line of the boat, and whistling a few feet above it. The birds, somewhat frightened, got within a hundred yards before swinging off, and all three discharged their large shot simultaneously. A single goose fell with a broken wing, and Carlo, springing out of the boat, plunged into the water. Charley watched the effect of his shot on the party on the berg. One stood just then in bold relief against the distant horizon, displaying the broader part of his physique to view while taking an observation with a brandy-bottle. Suddenly a faint yell was heard, the bottle dropped on the berg, the hands that had held it frantically clutched at the coat-tails of the victim, and an agonized pas seul told that the "Baby" had well avenged the wrongs of her owner.
Half an hour later, the party had evacuated their position, bag and baggage, "carrying their wounded," who, from the stern-sheets of their boat, shook his fist in savage pantomime at the innocent La Salle and his amused companions. Some weeks later he learned that a single large shot had, without piercing the cloth, raised a contusion about the size of a pigeon's egg, on muscles whose comfort, for a fortnight after, emphatically tabooed the use of chairs, and made a feather bed an indispensable adjunct to repose.
After a long chase Carlo secured his bird, and swimming to the nearest shore, ran around the edge of the ice, in a way which showed his appreciation of the difference between running, and swimming against a five-knot tide. Securing the bird, he was allowed to shake himself, and was then called into the boat, from which a good lookout was kept, as there now existed some chance for good management and skilful shooting.
The first victims were a flock of black ducks, which with the usual readiness to decoy of these birds, had flown in and lit among the decoys before La Salle could warn his boys, who had their backs turned at the time. They managed, however, to hear him, and poured in a sharp volley, killing four in the water, while La Salle picked a brace out on the wing.
Regnar, who had a breech-loader, got ready in time to kill a brace of Moniac duck out of a flock which swept past uttering their singularly desolate call of "Ouac-a-wee, ouac-a-wee!" and by the time these birds were retrieved, several faint reports to the eastward were heard, and a vast cloud of geese of both kinds rose just above the floating ice, and swept up towards the bar. Most of these settled down among the floes; but one large flock of brent swept over Peter, in answer to his almost perfect calling. The leaders of the flock were in the very act of alighting when he fired, and a dozen, at least, lay dead when the white smoke of his volley cleared away.
"I must have one turn with my float," said La Salle, after the three had taken lunch and had their share of a pint of hot, strong coffee prepared in the Crimean lantern. "The tide will soon turn, and I shall work out into the ice and come up with it. You, boys, must look out for the flying birds, and take in the floating decoys before they are crushed or lost."
Launching the light boat, he fitted his rowlocks, and with a light pair of sculls rowed for an hour out into the Gulf, taking care to keep well to the eastward. At the end of that time he unshipped his sculls, took in his rowlocks, fitted his sculling-oar into its muffled aperture, and getting himself comfortably settled, grasped his oar with his left hand, and with his eyes just peering over the gunwale, let the light boat drift with the returning tide, and its fantastic burden of water-worn congelations.
He had not floated two hundred yards, before a change of the ice revealed a small flock of seven geese, quietly feeding along the border of a low piece of field ice. Cocking his gun and laying it ready to hand, La Salle drifted nearer and nearer, keeping barely enough headway to steer her, bow on. The gander, a noble bird, suddenly raised his head to gaze at the advancing boat. All the rest instantly raised theirs ready for immediate flight. The anxious sportsman lay motionless, ceasing the play of his scull, and the birds, gradually relaxing their necks, turned and swam rapidly away.
Still, La Salle tried not to pursue, and the gander, finding that the boat did not get any nearer, stopped, looked, started, stopped, and went to feeding again, followed in all things, of course, by his companions. Then the delicate oar began its noiseless sweep, and gradually the sharp prow crept nearer, passing, one by one, sluggish floes and fantastic pinnacles, until again the wary leader raised his head as if in perplexity and doubt. There, to be sure, was the bit of ice he had taken fright at before, nearer than ever; but it floated as harmlessly as the cake just beside it, from whose edges he had gleaned rootlets of young and tender eel-grass not half an hour ago. So the poor overmatched bird doubtless argued; and ashamed of his fears, which were but too well founded, and doubtful of his instincts, which he should have trusted, the gander turned again to the little eddy of sea-wrack amid which, with soft guttural love-calls, he summoned his harem to many a dainty morsel.
Triumphantly shone the deadly eye which glittered beneath the snowy cap; noiselessly swung the ashen oar, and as unerringly set as Destiny, and remorseless as Death, the knife-like bow slid through the black waters. One hundred, ninety, eighty, seventy, fifty, forty yards only, divide the doomed birds from the boat, and the white gunwale is hidden from their view by the interposition of the very floe along whose edge they are feeding. Steadily La Salle drives the prow gently against the ice, then drops his oar, and grasps his heavy gun. He hazards a glance: the birds, scarce thirty yards away, are unsuspectingly feeding in a close body; he rises to a sitting posture, raises his gun, and whistles shrilly and long. Instantly the birds raise their heads, gathering around their leader. Bang! The thunder-roll of the report, reverberating amid the ice, is the death-sentence of the flock. Not one escaped; the distance was too short, the aim too sure, the charge of mitraille too close and heavy.
A flying shot at a flock of eider duck added a male, with snowy crest, and three plump, brown females; and a successful approach to a small flock of brent made up fifteen birds under the half-deck of the little craft. It was almost dark when, with little time to spare, La Salle came flying through the fast-coming ice, and dashed across the narrow lane of water, between the immovable covering of the bar, and the advancing, tide-borne ice-islands.
The boys had just drawn in their decoys, and loaded their sled with the birds taken from the boat, besides three geese and a brent, which they had shot during his absence. The other boats had already landed, and been drawn in far up on the ice. Regnar did not know if the centre-wheel had got anything, but Davies and Creamer had four geese, five brent, and a black duck. Peter had gone home with a sled-load of fowl, and, in short, the day had been generally satisfactory all round.
That night, however, all were tired, wet, and half blind with the ceaseless glare of the each-day-warmer sun; nor did any care to spend in listening to idle tales, the hours which might better be given to sleep. Such, for more than a week longer, was their experience, varied only by a few brief frosts, during which, however, the hot coffee made in their lantern-stove was unanimously voted "just the thing."
"Snow-blindness" set in, and Ben had once or twice to leave the ice; while George Waring experienced several attacks, and had a linen cloth full of pulverized clay—the best application known—kept in the boat for emergencies.
By the middle of the next week, a narrow channel had opened up to the city; and Creamer and Davies, piling their decoys beside their deserted box, and leaving Lund to haul them to the shelter of his woods, took the first flood, and paddled briskly homeward, leaving Indian Peter and La Salle in the latter's stand; while Regnar, who had become a proficient with the small boat, struck out for the broken ice lying to the east.
"Good by, Charley; when shall I tell them to expect you?" said Ben, as he started his wheels, and the boat, heavily laden with fowl, moved northward.
"O, at the end of the week, at farthest. Much obliged to you for taking those birds. I'll have a load Saturday. Good by."
"Good by," said Hughie and Ben, once more; and then they bent to their task, churning into foam the rippleless surface, which bore them on its swift but unnoticeable tide towards home, leaving behind their comrade, his savage companion, and their boyish associates, to experience adventures without parallel in all the strange hunting-lore of those northern seas.
About midday, Captain Lund drove down on the ice to draw up the boat owned by his sons; after which he was to return a second time for the decoys and shooting-box of the homeward-bound sportsmen. The floe was fast wasting under the April sun, and his horses' iron-shod hoofs sank deep into the snow-ice, which the night-frosts had left at morn as hard as flint.
He drove with his habitual caution, sounding more than one suspicious place with the axe, and at last came to a long tide-crack, through which the open water showed clear, and which seemed to divide the floe as far as the eye could reach.
"I come none too soon," said the deliberate pilot; "and I must warn La Salle not to trust his boat here another night."
"Well, captain, what think you of the weather?" asked La Salle, as the shaggy pony and rough sled halted near the boat.
"It looks a little cloudy, but I guess nothing more than a fog may be expected to-night. You had better have your boat ready to get ashore right away; for the ice, though heavy enough, is full of cracks, and will go off with the first northerly gale which comes with the ebb."
"Well, I'll be getting the boat clear of the ice, and you may come for us the last of all."
And Lund, driving down the bar to his own boat, left La Salle busily at work, with axe and shovel, clearing away the well-packed ice which had for the last three weeks concealed the sides of the goose-boat.
By the time that Lund had hooked on to his own boat and driven up again, a large heap of ice and snow had been thrown out; but the runners were evidently frozen down, and the boat was immovable.
"I shan't have her clear until you get through with Davies's outfit; but I guess we shall be ready for you then."
Lund drove on, dragging the heavy boat up to the beach, and then concluded to haul it up the bank, above the reach of the increasing tides, and the danger of being crushed by the ice. As he cast off her rope, he felt a snow-flake on the back of his hand. Before he reached the ice, they were falling thick and noiselessly.
"I must hurry; for there's no time to lose. The tide is just at its turn; and if the wind comes from the north, the boys will be adrift. Come; get up, Lightfoot. G'lang! Whoop! Go it!"
Already the rising wind began to whirl the thick-falling flakes in smothering wreaths, and Lund groaned in spirit as, following the tracks of his last trip, the stanch little horse galloped down the ice.
"I am afraid this is the end of my vision; for the ice won't be long in breaking up now, and those boys are out in that d—n little craft."
And Lund in his perturbation swore and cursed after the manner of "sailor-men" generally; that is, when they most need to pray.
Suddenly the little horse hesitated, relaxed into a trot, snorted, reared, and stopped, wheeling half around, with the sleigh-runners diagonally across the half-effaced track, which came to an unexpected stop. Lund saw at once that another rod would have plunged horse and man into the Gulf; the ice-fields had parted, and the boats and their occupants were floating away at the mercy of the winds and waves.
"Let's see," said Lund; "the wind is nor'-east, and the tide will set them in some, too. So, if the gale does not shift, that'll carry them past McQuarrie's Point, and I'll hail them then, and let them know where they are. God grant that they've got the boat clear; for once away from the lee of the island, their craft would never find land in such a squall as this. Come, Lightfoot," he added, as he sprang upon the sled, and brought his leathern reins smartly across the animal's back, "there's four lives on our speed; so go your fastest, poor fellow! and God help that we may not be too late."
Meanwhile La Salle and Peter had viewed with no little anxiety the sudden overclouding of the sky, or rather the heavy curtain of vapor which seemed to descend mysteriously from the zenith, rather than to gather from beyond the horizon.
"I no like snow; wind no good this time; tide too high. Spose Lund come, must get boat across crack yonder any way."
And the one-armed hunter plied the light axe with a haste which showed no small amount of anxiety.
The boat was soon clear, but the snow was falling so fast that they could scarcely see to windward at all, and no part of the land was visible. Again the Indian spoke, and a new cause of anxiety was stated.
"Where sposum boys this time? See boat little hile ago. No see any now. They no see hice. Spose shootum big gun call them hin?"
La Salle took the heavy piece, and was about to discharge it to leeward, when, from the very air above their heads, a voice seemed to call on them by name, "La Salle, Charley, Peter, ahoy!"
La Salle dropped the butt of his gun, and listened. Again the voice sounded apparently nearer than before. "Charley, Peter, ahoy!"
"That voice ole man Lund. I know it; but what for sposum voice there? Then track go that way. Ole man lose way, spose."
"Perhaps he has fallen in, Peter. Come, let's go."
And catching a rope near him, and forgetting to lay down the cumbrous gun, Charley ran towards the incessant and evidently-agonized cries, Peter following with an axe and a light fish-spear.
Scarcely had the runners gone a hundred yards before they stopped in dismay. At their feet the ice-field ended abruptly, and scarce a hundred yards away rose a wall of red sandstone, on whose summit stood Lund, peering down into the whirl of snow-flakes. His quick eye espied them, and he shouted his last advice.
"Launch your boat at once; don't wait. Keep under the lee. Don't try to save anything but your lives. Keep the wind at your backs in rowing, and mind the set of the tide eastward."
"Ay, ay! I understand. We're waiting for the boys!" shouted La Salle.
"I can't hear a word," called out Lund across the rapidly-increasing space.
"Give me that spear, Peter," said La Salle.
And snapping off the tiny barbs, he drew from his pocket a pencil, and wrote as follows on the slender rod of white maple:—
"We know our danger, but have no oars; for the boys have not returned. Unless they do so soon, shall stick to the ice until the weather clears. Look for us along the coast if the storm lasts.
"Love to all. LA SALLE."
Holding up the rod to be seen by Lund, he placed it in the muzzle of his piece, and motioned to the captain to watch its flight. The pilot stepped behind a tree, and La Salle aimed at the face of a large snow-drift near him. The report echoed amid the broken ledges, the long white arrow sped through the air, and stuck in the snow close to the tree. Lund picked it up, and bent over it a moment; then bowed his head, as if assuring them of his approval of its contents.
Already the floe had moved into rough water, and the short waves raised by the increasing gale began to throw their spray far up on the ice. The snow-squall gathered fury, and La Salle, waving his hand, pointed heavenward, while Peter, knowing but too well the danger of their position, sank on his knees, and began the simple prayers of his faith. Lund saw them fade from view into the sleety veil that hid the waste of waters, and groaning in spirit, turned homeward.
"In half an hour no boat on the island can reach them, even if men could be found to face certain death in a snow-storm out on the open Gulf."
Peter rose to his feet, apparently almost hopeless.
"Good by, Saint Peter's! Good by, Trois Lieues' Creek! Good by, Lund! Poor Peter no more shootum wild goose here."
"Come, Peter, don't give it up so," said La Salle. "We must find the boys and get their oars and boat, and then well try and see what we can do to get ashore."
Peter's eyes brightened a little, and walking around the edge of the floe, they came, in the course of twenty minutes, to the boys, snugly seated under their inverted boat, in a hollow of a large berg, which, until that day, had never floated with the tide.
"Come, boys, this won't do. We're adrift, and getting well out into the Gulf. Turn over your boat, put everything into her, and let's try what we can do with the big boat."
In desperate haste the four took down the light craft, threw in the oars and guns, and dashed across the quarter of a mile which lay between them and the windward side of the ice. In about five minutes they reached the large boat; but all saw at a glance that little less than a miracle was needed to carry them safe ashore.
The snow was falling thick and fast, the wind driving it in eddying clouds, and amid it could be seen at times the white caps of the increasing surges as they broke on the edge of the floe. It was evident that it would be madness to attempt to leave their present position; yet all stood silent a moment, as if unwilling to be the first to confess the painful truth.
At last La Salle broke the silence. "It's no use, boys; we must stay here all night. And first, let's get both boats down to the berg, for this floe may go to pieces any time; but that is all of twenty feet thick, and will stand a good deal yet. Come, pile in the decoys and tools, and let's get under cover as soon as we can."
The decoys of iron and wood, and even those of fir-twigs, of which they had added some three dozen, were piled into the boats, and taking hold at the painter of the largest, they soon trundled the heavy load to the thickest part of the field.
"Sposum we get Davies's box and 'coys too. Then we makum camp, have plenty wood too. Spose field break up, loosem sartin," said Peter.
"You're right. Come, boys. We don't know how long we may be on this ice-field, and we shall need all the shelter we can get, and fuel too."
It was nearly an hour before they found the box and its pile of decoys, but the box had been furnished with rude runners, and being already clear of the ice, there was no delay in what was evidently becoming a dangerous proximity to the sea; for that edge of the ice was already breaking up, as the rollers broke over it, bearing it down with the weight of water. Sunset must have been close at hand when the party arrived, wet, weary, and almost despairing, at the berg.
"Now, boys," said La Salle, "we must build our house at once, for no one can tell how long this storm may last. Luckily we have two shovels and two axes. Peter and I will cut away the ice, and you two will pile up fragments, and clear away the snow and rubbish."
Choosing a crater-like depression on the summit of the berg, La Salle laid out a parallelogram about eight feet square, and motioning to Peter, proceeded to sink a square shaft into the solid ice, which, at first a little spongy, rapidly became hard and flinty. Aided by the natural shape of the berg, in the course of an hour a cavity had been cleared out to the depth of about six feet. Over this was inverted the box belonging to Davies, and this was kept in place by fragments of ice piled around and over it, after which the interstices were filled with wet snow, and the whole patted into a firm, impermeable mound.
On the leeward side the wall had been purposely left thin, and through this a narrow door, about three feet high, was cut into the excavation. Lighting his lantern, La Salle stepped inside, finding himself in a gloomy but warm room, about nine feet high in the walls, and eight feet square. Taking the dryest of the fir decoys, he cut the cords which bound them together, and laying the icy branches of their outer covering on the bare ice, soon formed a non-conducting carpet of fir-twigs, of which the upper layers were nearly dry.
The whole party then entered, carefully brushing from their clothes and boots as much of the snow as possible, and, seating themselves, for the first time rested from incessant exertion amid the furious peltings of a driving north-east snow-storm.
La Salle motioned to the rest to place their guns in a nook near the door, and taking the boiler of the lantern, filled it with snow, and placed it above the flame. Regnar, noticing this, went out and brought in the rude chest containing the remnants of their little stock of coffee, and the basket with what was left of the day's lunch.
In the former were found a few matches, about a half pound of coffee, perhaps a pound of sugar, a box and a half of sardines, and two or three dozen ship's hard-bread. In the basket were left several slices of bread, a junk of corned beef weighing about two pounds, and some apples and doughnuts.
In a short time the tiny boiler, which held about a pint, was full of boiling water, to which La Salle added some coffee, and soon each had a small but refreshing draught, which helped wonderfully to restore their usual warmth and vigor of circulation. From the lunch-basket, whose contents had remained untouched all day, a slight meal was taken, and then the remainder of the provisions put carefully away, although a second cup of coffee was left preparing in the lantern for possible contingencies.
La Salle looked at his watch—it was nearly eight o'clock.
"We are now well down off Point Prime, and are probably under the lee of other ice, as we no longer feel the tossing of the sea. The boats are all ready for use, but it is not likely we shall need them to-night, unless, indeed—Let us hold a council of war, and decide at once on our course of action."
THE COUNCIL.—PASSING THE CAPE.
Drawing his coat tightly around him, La Salle first drew aside the rubber blanket which had been hung up for a door, and crawled out into the storm. The snow still fell heavily, but although the wind blew very hard, few drifts were formed, owing to the wet and heavy nature of the large, soft flakes, although at times a flurry of sharp, stinging hail rattled against the boats and the roof of the ice-chamber.
As nearly as he could judge, the wind was north-east, or perhaps a point or two south of that, for at times there came warmer gusts, as if the wind veered to a milder quarter. The roar of the sea could be plainly heard, but evidently far up to windward, and there was little doubt that they need have no apprehensions from that source at present.
Re-entering he found his friends anxiously awaiting his report on the aspect of things outside, and he plunged at once into the gist of the matter before them.
"I see no reason to expect any change in our situation until the tide turns, which will be in about an hour. I can notice no change in the wind, nor do I think we have shifted our relative position to its course. Should the storm decrease towards morning, we shall probably find ourselves up the straits, in the vicinity of the capes. Only one danger can possibly assail us, and that is being ground to pieces on the New Brunswick shore. We must keep a watch to-night, commencing at about twelve o'clock. Regnar, will you keep the first watch of an hour and a half, and then call me?"
"Yes, sir; all right. I wake any time, and I know what 'nip' means. We must not get caught napping if that happens."
"Can't we get ashore and off of this horrid floe, if we strike on the other shore?" asked Waring, a little dolorously.
"I'm afraid not, my dear George. The straits here, nearly thirty miles wide, converge to about twelve at the capes; and this terrible gale, although we feel it scarcely at all in the heart of this berg, will drive us with the rising ebb, at a velocity little less than ten miles an hour, through that narrow, choked pass, bordered by the ice-cliffs which form, on the shallows every winter, to the height of from ten to twenty feet above the water."
"Should this berg be driven against the verge of these immovable cliffs, our only resource will be to take to our boats and retreat farther off on the floes; for a single mishap in crossing the terrible chasm which borders the irresistible course of this great ice-stream, would consign us all to irremediable destruction. I propose that we thank God for his mercies thus far, and implore his aid in the future. Then we may lie down secure in His protection, and gather new strength for whatever may be before us."
Thus saying, La Salle knelt, and in solemn but unfaltering tones repeated the short but inimitable prayer which embodies the needs of every petitioner. Peter crossed himself at the close, and broke out,—
"I feel 'fraid, all time till now. I hear Lund see ghost. I think we never get back. Now I feel sure all go right, and I worry like woman no more."
"Thank you, Peter. I shall depend on good service from you; and I may say that I have little doubt of landing somewhere to-morrow, if the weather clears so that we can see. Come, Regnie, get the rest of those dry decoys out of the boat, and we'll turn in for two or three hours, when you must take the first watch."
Regnar brought in about twenty bundles more of fir-twigs, which were piled against the wall so as to form a kind of slanting pillow, against which the party might rest their backs and heads in a half-sitting posture, without being chilled by the ice-wall of their narrow dormitory. Waring drew his seal-skin cap over his ears, turned up his wide coat-collar of the same costly fur, and placed himself next to Peter, who, as the worst clad of the party, wrapped himself in his dingy blanket, and seated himself at the back of the hut. Regnar, in his Canadian capote, was next, and La Salle with difficulty found room between himself and the door for his faithful dog, whose natural warmth had already dried his long fur, and made him a very welcome bed-fellow under such circumstances. Thus disposed, it was not long before they all fell asleep; and at twelve o'clock, La Salle, only half awake, gave Regnar his watch, and saw the resolute boy go out into the storm to commence his lonely vigil.
Scarcely feeling that he had more than got fairly to sleep again, he was again awakened by Regnar, who said in a low voice, "'Tis two o'clock, master; but I would not waken you if I did not think that the floe has shifted sides, for we are no longer under a lee. I hear too, at times, cracking and grinding of the ice, and I think we are not far from shore."
La Salle hurriedly went out. The wind blew into his very teeth, as he emerged from the narrow door; but it seemed no warmer or colder, and the snow fell much the same as before. Near them, through the storm, another berg of equal height with their own seemed to appear at times, and the crash of falling and breaking ice arose on all sides. Still, for an hour nothing could be seen, until between three and four the snow gave place to a sleety rain, and the watchers saw that they were passing with frightful rapidity a line of jagged ice-cliffs, not two hundred yards away. La Salle called his companions, and they watched for nearly an hour in constant expectation of having to take to their boat.
The pressure was tremendous, and on every side floes heaped up their debris on each other, and pinnacles forced into collision were ground into common ruin. Now shut out from view in darkness and storm, and now close at hand in the multitudinous shiftings of the ice, the immovable and gigantic buttresses of the ice-pool ground into powder acres of level floe, and bergs containing hundreds of thousands of tons of ice. Along that terrible line of impact rolled and heaved a chaos of mealy sludge and gigantic fragments, while from time to time a mass of many tons would be thrown, like a child's plaything, high up amid the debris already heaped along the inaccessible shore. Half a dozen times the startled voyagers seized their boat to drag her down from the berg, as the shore-ice gnawed into the sides of their narrowing ice-field.
At last a move appeared inevitable. The distance between their refuge and the shore was less than fifty yards, and in the gray of the morning they saw castle after castle crushed off by this fearful attrition, while high above their heads rose the ruin-strewed and inhospitable ice-foot.
"Stand by, lads, to move the boats, when I give the word. Look, Regnar! What is that above the cliff?"
"That a light-house, I think. Guess that on Cape Torment. No light there in winter; not many vessels here then."
"Yes, we are passing the capes, and not a mile distant is the hostelry of Tom Allan. Well, we can't land, that's certain; and as we can't, I hope we shall soon get into a wider channel. How the trees fly past! Ah, here the pressure lessens; we shall soon be above the narrows, and if the tide only serves—Good Heaven! what is that?"
An eddy seemed to catch the floe as he spoke, and whirling like a top, it brought between it and the shore a fantastically-shaped berg, at least twenty-five feet high. The "nip" was but momentary; but the lofty shaft and its floating base cracked like a mirror, the huge fabric fell into ruins, and one of its pieces, striking the smaller boat, crushed it into utter uselessness.
La Salle viewed the wreck of his little bark ruefully a moment.
"Well, the worst is over, and we are fortunate in losing so little, for it might have struck the larger boat, and that would have been indeed a loss. Come, boys, we have passed Cape Torment; let us pick some of those birds and get breakfast, for we shan't land this day, with an easterly gale hurrying the ice-pack thus to the north-west."
TAKING AN INVENTORY.—SETTING UP THE STOVE.
Peter was already picking a dead goose, and Regnar and Waring were about to follow his example, when La Salle interposed.
"Let us skin the birds, for it may be that we shall be unable to land for several days, and if so, we shall need all the covering we can get, for this thaw is sure to be followed by a severe frost or two."
"Sposum tide turn, ice lun down to capes, then get ashore," said Peter, confidently.
La Salle drew out his watch.
"It was high tide at four o'clock, and it is now nearly seven. Peter, just climb to the top of the berg, and see how we drift."
Peter dropped his half-picked bird, ascended with eager agility, lined another projection of the floe with some object on the New Brunswick shore, seemed puzzled, looked more carefully, and then slowly descended, apparently sad and disheartened.
"Well, Peter, how is it?" said La Salle, cheerfully.
"No good; ice lun north-west, against tide; no get ashore to-day," was the reluctant answer.
Regnar seemed little surprised, but Waring turned almost white with anxiety and disappointment.
"I thought as much," said La Salle, quietly. "With such a gale as this, the tide, whose rise and fall does not average four feet on this coast, often seems to run in one direction, and even to remain at flood for a day or two; but even if it did fall, this floe carries sail enough with this wind to make from two to three miles an hour against it. We shall probably have easterly and southerly winds until to-morrow, and must now be well up to Cape Bauld, and about mid-channel, say twelve miles from shore."
"Why not try land, then, with the boat? We four could surely make twelve mile in the course of the day," asked Regnar, somewhat impatiently for him.
"How deep is the snow and slush now, Regnie?" asked the leader of the little party, calmly.
"'Bout knee-deep on level ice," said the boy.
"Come up here, all of you," said La Salle, ascending the lookout.
The three followed, and found themselves scarcely able to stand at times, when a fiercer blast than usual swept up the strait, howling through the tortuous and intricate ravines and valleys of the ice-fields.
"Can we cross such a place as that?" asked La Salle, pointing to where an edge of a large ice-field, suddenly lifted by the wedge-like brink of another, began a majestic and resistless encroachment, with the incalculable power communicated by the vast weight pressing behind it.
A body of ice, at least a yard in thickness, ran up a steep ascent of five or six feet, broke with its own weight, pressed on again up the steeper incline, broke again, and so continued to ascend and break off until a ridge a score of feet high, crested with glittering fragments of broken ice, interrupted the passage between the two floes.
Regnar was silent, and then said, resolutely,—
"We can try, at least."
"Well said, Regnie," cried La Salle; "but look again yonder." He pointed to a small lead of open water bounded with abrupt shores, which were surrounded with rounded balls and water-worn fragments of ice. A berg, losing its balance, fell with a loud splash, sank, and came to the surface with a bound, covering the water with wet snow and the ruins of the shattered pinnacles. "Can we also pass the heavy drags of the drifted snow, the baffling resistance of floating sludge, and such dangers as that?"
Turning, he descended under the lee of the shelter, where he was soon followed by the rest.
"What spose we do, then?" asked Peter. "We stay this place to die of cold and hunger?"
"Peter, I'm ashamed of you," said La Salle. "Die, do you say, when we have food, shelter, fire, and covering? We must, indeed, stay here until the winds and sea give us a better chance to escape to the shore. Meanwhile let us try to make ourselves comfortable."
Accordingly the birds—six geese and eight brent—were divested of their skins, which furnished patches of warm covering, of from two to four square feet. The sinews of the legs were divided into threads, and, using a small sail-needle which he carried to clean the tube of his gun, La Salle proceeded to show Waring how to make a large robe, placing the larger skins in the middle, and forming a border of the smaller ones.
Meanwhile Regnar had cleared the snow from a space about twelve feet square in front of the door, and, with fragments of ice, cemented with wet snow, formed a walled enclosure which kept off the wind; and Peter, splitting two or three of the wooden decoys, soon built a fire, over which a pair of geese, spitted on sticks, were narrowly watched and sedulously turned, while La Salle made a cup of his carefully-treasured coffee.
As they sat eating their rude meal, Regnar broke the silence; for it may well be believed that no great hilarity pervaded the little party.
"As we not know how long we may be adrift, I think we better take 'count stock. See how much wood, provisions, powder, shot, everyting."
"You are right, Regnie; we will set to work at once. I can tell how much food we have now. We have a little bread, coffee, sugar, and a tin of sardines, which I think we had better reserve for possible emergencies, also six candles, which we must not waste. I have a pound canister of powder untouched, and nearly half a pound more in my flask, with about five pounds of shot, and three dozen shot-cartridges of different sizes, say sixty charges in all. Besides that, my rifle lies in the boat, loaded, with a small bag of bullets, and a quarter-pound flask of rifle powder."
"I," said Waring, "have thirty cartridges for my breech-loader, and a few of the caps for them, in a box in my pocket."
"I have nearly a pound powder, some wads, caps, and 'bout two pounds of shot left," said Regnar.
"Spose I got half pound powder in old horn, box caps mos' full, an' tree poun' goose shot," said Peter.
"We have, then, somewhere between one hundred and fifty and two hundred rounds of ammunition, and provisions for a week, allowing ourselves no addition to the present stock. Count the decoys, Regnie, while I look up our tools, &c."
Regnie reported forty wooden decoys, twelve of sheet iron, eight of cork and canvas, and twelve wooden duck decoys. Besides these, there were still untouched a dozen bunches of fir and spruce twigs, like those used in covering the floor of the ice-hut. In addition to these, La Salle found one large boat, the broken smaller one, a pair of oars, a pair of rowlocks, a short boat-hook, baler, two lead-lines and leads, two shovels, and two axes.
"We are well provided for a week of such weather as this, and have only to fear a sudden change to extreme cold. I therefore think the first thing for us to do, is to finish our feather quilt, enlarge our hut, and get up a stove as soon as possible."
A general expression of incredulity showed itself on the faces of the trio, which La Salle evidently interpreted rightly, and therefore hastened to explain himself.
"Of course we must first make our stove."
"Why, Charley, what on earth can we make our stove of?" said Waring.
"Sheet iron, of course."
"But where is the sheet iron to come from? We haven't any here—have we?"
"Ah, I know twelve decoys sheet-iron, only they painted."
"Yes, Regnie, you have guessed it. Those decoys are about as good sheet iron as is made, and we can burn the paint off, I guess. Five of them will furnish a cylinder, conical stove, fifteen inches diameter, and as many high, and five more will give us about seven feet of two and a half-inch stove-pipe. Bring in the decoys and axes, and we'll get it up at once."
"Come on, boys," said Waring, whose spirits had risen perceptibly since breakfast. "We'll have a hotel here yet, and supply passengers by the mail-boat with hot dinners."
"Sposum me have knife, I help you. Leave waghon home yesterday for hould woman make baskets," said Peter, ruefully.
"I guess we shall manage with the axes, although we need a knife like your Indian draw-knife. Reach me a large decoy, and the heaviest of those cod-leads."
La Salle had already "laid out" with the point of his penknife the shape of one of the sections of his proposed stove upon one of the decoys from which Regnar had already removed the iron leg, which was about six inches long, sharp pointed, and intended to be driven into the ice. Each section was twenty inches long, eight and a half inches wide at the lower end, and two and a half at the upper; and luckily the outline of the goose gave very nearly this shape, with little trimming, which was effected by laying the iron on the lead, applying the edge of the smaller axe as a chisel, and striking on its head with the large. The laps were then "turned" over the edge of an axe with a billet of wood cut from the old cross-bars of Davies's shooting-box, which were young ash saplings. Then the pieces were put together, the laps solidly beaten down, and despite a little irregularity of shape, the job was not a bad one.
Five other decoys furnished as many parallelograms of seventeen by eight and a half, which made good two and three quarter inch pipe, and afforded nearly seven feet in length when affixed to the cylinder.
It was nearly four o'clock when the work was thus far completed.
"If we only had a flat stone to set it on," said Waring.
"I should not despair of that even," said La Salle, "if we dared look around on some of the older floes; but we shall have to do without one for a day or two, I think."
"Peter make glate, three, two minutes, only glate burn up every day or two;" and hastening out, he returned with a very large decoy, which, on account of its portentous size, had been made the leader of the "set" when arranged on the ice.
With the axe he broke off the head, and then taking six of the ten iron legs, he drove them two or three inches deep into the tough spruce log, until the spikes surrounded it like the points of a crown. La Salle had re-riveted the four others at equal distances around the base of the stove, while Regnar had removed a part of the snow on the roof, and, cutting a large aperture through the bottom of the inverted box, nailed over it the eleventh decoy, through which a roughly-cut hole gave admittance to the chimney.
The fir-branches were then removed to the yard, and covered from the still falling rain with the rubber blanket, while all hands joined in enlarging their quarters. The ice was singularly hard and clear, and contained no cracks or other sources of weakness. By sunset the lower part of the hut was enlarged from eight feet square to twelve feet diameter, a circular shape being given to the excavation, so that a continuous berth, about two feet wide and a yard high, ran completely around the floor of the hut, or rather to within about four feet of the door on either side. The fir-twigs were replaced in the berths and around the floor, leaving a bare space of nearly four feet diameter in the centre. Here a slight hollow was made, to contain the novel grate, and the stove was placed in position over it.
Waring brought in a shovelful of embers from the dying fire outside, under whose ashes a goose, swathed in sea-weed, was preparing for supper, and Peter followed him with some small chunks of wood. The stove "drew" beautifully, and but one drawback could be discovered—it made the atmosphere within too warm for comfort, at the then temperature. "No matter that," said Peter, prophetically; "we glad see plenty fire here to-morrow night."
It was nearly midnight when the four ate supper and gave the fragments to their faithful dog. Before sleeping, La Salle stepped outside the hut. The wind had lessened greatly, but still blew mildly warm from a southerly direction. "We must now be somewhere off Shediac, but I see no open water, and the pack is as close as ever. We shan't get down to the capes with this wind, and to-morrow at this time, if the wind holds, we shall be up to Point Escumenac. I don't care to think what next; but if, as Peter says, we are to have cold, westerly weather, we must move off into the open Gulf and then—Well, we shall endure what it pleases God to send us."
Notwithstanding their fatigue, all were awake at daylight the next morning, and immediately the whole party ascended their lookout. The wind still blew in very nearly the same direction, but with little force, and at noon, as the party sat down to their first meal for the day, no land could be plainly determined, and for an hour the utmost calm prevailed, with an unclouded sun. The pack was still closed, however, with the exception of two or three small openings, in which were seen a seal and several flocks of moniac ducks, known on the Atlantic coast as "South-Southerlies." The former could not be approached, but Peter got two shots at the ducks as they gyrated over the berg, and killed three at one time and four at another, which were duly skinned, and the bodies consigned to the "meat-safe," a hole in the ice near the door.
This meal tasted a little better than the former ones, the birds being seasoned with salt procured from sea-water by boiling—a slow process, which La Salle promised to make easier when the next frost set in. The bird-skins had been carefully cleaned from fat, and sewed into two blankets about seven feet by five each, and stretched on the ice with the flesh side uppermost, were rubbed with salt and ashes, and then exposed to the sun, receiving considerable benefit thereby.
For supper, a soup of fowls thickened with grated biscuit was eaten with hearty relish by all but Waring, who claimed to have eaten too much at dinnertime, although La Salle fancied that he looked flushed and pale by turns.
"Do you feel sick, George?" said La Salle, anxiously, when the others were temporarily absent from the hut.
"O, no, Charley; don't fuss about me. I'm all right, only I've eaten a little too much of that fat meat, and taken scarcely any exercise," was the reply.
"Well, George, don't fail to let me know at once if you do feel sick, for my stock of medicines is limited, and I must do my doctoring during the first stages of the disease," said La Salle, gravely.
"Yes, I should judge so, doctor," laughed Waring; and, turning to the fire, he placed another stick under the cylinder, as if suffering from a chill.
At an hour before sunset they saw on their left hand, and, as nearly as they could judge, about twelve miles away, the high headland of Escumenac. The pack opened a little, for the wind had now been blowing for about three hours from the west, the air was very perceptibly colder, and the standing pools on the ice began to freeze. Under Le Salle's direction, Regnar cut a hole in the ice, which would hold about four pailsful of salt water, and filled it to overflowing, while Peter cut up a dozen of the decoys into junks three inches square, and piled them near the door.
As they entered the hut, they found Waring shivering over the fire. "I am afraid, Charley," stammered he, "that I am going to be very sick, for I can't keep warm to save my life."
DOCTORING UNDER DIFFICULTIES.—AN ANXIOUS NIGHT.—FROZEN UP.
La Salle examined the condition of his patient, and found his tongue furred, his pulse quick and feverish, his tonsils badly inflamed, and the chills alternating with flushes of fever heat. The mind of the patient, too, was anxious; for at the close of the brief examination he said, "I hope I shan't be sick, for there isn't much show for me out here on the ice."
"And why not, George? Although I hope you will have nothing more than a bad cold, yet I think I could cure a pretty sick man out here."
"But we have no medicines, or beds, or food, or anything, scarcely."
"What nonsense! We are far more comfortably housed than the poor Esquimaux, and even Peter there lives no warmer than we do—do you, Peter?"
"Womegun hetter than this; but this place very comforble. I no fraid freeze here."
"Well, George, I must turn doctor now, and try to stop this cold; for as yet it is no worse. Peter, make a fire outside, and heat the iron bailer full of salt water. Regnie, reach me my powder-horn and the little tin cup of the lantern."
Pouring four drachms of gunpowder into the cup, he filled it about half full of water, and setting it near the hot coals under the red hot cylinder, soon dissolved the explosive, forming an inky fluid. From the ammunition bucket he drew a small phial, which had been filled with olive oil, and pouring some hot water and a little shot into it, he soon cleaned it for the reception of the fluid, which he filtered through several thicknesses of his woolen gun-cover. About a fluid ounce of a rather dirty-looking solution of saltpeter resulted, to which a little sugar was added.
"Here we have," said the man of drugs, "some three drachms of saltpeter in solution, of which, by and by, you may take about one sixth, letting it gargle your throat going down. Peter, is the water hot?"
"Yes, broder, water boilin' hover. What do with him now?"
"I want to soak his feet; but what shall we do it in? I can fill my seal-skin boots, but they would be awkward."
"There's the ammunition bucket," suggested Regnie.
"That was made to hold peas and such like, and leaks like a sieve."
"Put the rubber blanket around it," interposed the patient.
"That's the idea," said La Salle. And hanging up one of the bird-skin rugs in its place, the "mackintosh" was drawn and carefully knotted around the rim of the shaky receptacle. Into this the hot water was poured, and being duly tempered to a safe degree of heat, Waring removed his boots and stockings, and, seated on a couple of decoys, bathed his feet and ankles for about fifteen minutes.
In the mean time, the portion of the sleeping-room farthest from the door, was carefully fitted with dry twigs and one of the bird-skin coverlets, and the lad's stockings were thoroughly dried at the stove until they felt warm and comfortable. Taking one of the discarded cotton-flannel shooting-gowns, duly warmed at the fire, La Salle and Regnar carefully and energetically dried and rubbed Waring's extremities, now warmed and suffused with blood drawn from the overtaxed blood-vessels of the head and body, after which his warmed and dried foot-gear were replaced, and he was tucked away in his berth.
"Does your chest pain you at all, George?" asked his attendant, as he drew the thick feather covering over the sick boy.
"No; but my throat does a little. It feels much better, though, than it did."
La Salle thought a moment, then drew from a little cavity in the wall near the door a small junk of bird-fat, which he melted in the tin cup. "I will rub your throat with goose-grease. It is a great favorite of the old women, and will keep the air from your tender skin, if it doesn't relieve the soreness of the inflamed membranes." So saying, he rubbed in the warm, soft fat with his hands, covering the skin above the bronchial tubes and the soft parts of the throat with the penetrating unguent, then fastening a turn of his list gun-cover around his throat, he replaced the covering, and taking his cap, went out into the night air, and seeking the lookout, glanced eagerly out over the waste of ice.
The night was clear and cold, with only an occasional puff of wind from the westward; but the temperature was falling fast, and the snow-crust broke under the foot with a sound ominous of biting cold. All around was ice, and even if the light-houses along that coast were lighted in winter, it is doubtful if the party were near enough to land to see any except that of Point Escumenac, which at noon bore north-west and about fifteen miles away. Since that time, the drift of the pack, at nightfall evidently making eastward, or rather north-east, had probably increased the distance to nearly forty miles.
La Salle surveyed the wild scene around him—the pillars hewn from vast masses of eternal ice by the shock of fearful collision, the slow action of the sun, the corrosion of the waves, and the melting kisses of the rain, and thus fashioned into fantastic mockeries of fane, monument, tower, and spire, even by daylight were strangely wonderful, but under the mystic night and the weird light of the stars, seemed like icy statues, in whose chill bosoms were incarnated the genii of desolation and death.
"Ay! thus we move, helpless, lost, and beyond the aid of man, convoyed by a fleet of fantasies into a sailless sea, and to an unknown fate. Well I know that by to-morrow, myriads of eyes will watch for signs of our presence from Canseau to Gaspe, and on both shores of St. Jean; but they will look in vain. A week hence they will hear of our disappearance in Baltimore, and Paulie will know her own heart at last. I may not regret this if I escape with life, for well I know we are like to come back as men from the dead."
"Why do you speak of death, La Salle?" said a voice in good and even polished French; and La Salle, turning, found that Regnar stood beside him. An air of education which he had never noticed before seemed to pervade this youth, who spoke English almost execrably, and had shown little more than a passable knowledge of the coast of Labrador, and a keen insight into all the varied craft of hunter and fisherman.
"I was only thinking," said La Salle, evasively, speaking in the same language. "But how is it that you, who know French and German, speak English so badly?"
"You will know some time, but not to-night; although I may tell you this—that I shall receive from you the greatest good that man will ever confer, or at least the realization of some long-cherished desire. God grant that it may end my long search for him, although my life end with it."
"Of whom do you speak?" asked La Salle, impressed with his manner.
"Regnar don't care talk now. Nights getting cold; so come in and look at sick boy. Ha, ha, ha! You've been tinman, tailor, cook, navigator, and now you're doctor. Come on!" And La Salle almost doubted his own sanity as he followed the old Regnie of his Labrador voyage down the side of the mound, where a moment ago an unsuspected, hidden fire had revealed itself.
Just as they were about to enter the little outer enclosure, La Salle laid his hand on the arm of his companion. "Regnie, don't for your life let the others know that I have doubt of our safety; and keep up poor Waring's spirits if you can."
Cheerfully and firmly the answer came back in good Parisian, "I will not fail you. I have no fear now, and the life of the ice is nothing new to me. When the winds have done their work, and we no longer look for the loom of the cliffs, or the hazy purple of the distant forests, I will take my turn in your place." And grasping La Salle's hand, Orloff stepped into the chamber.
"How you do, George? Here's the doctor again," and La Salle, with no little anxiety, approached his patient.
"I have no chills now, but my throat is still quite sore, and I have some fever, I think."
La Salle laid his hand on the boy's forehead. It was parched with fever, but a close search failed to discover any signs of dangerous throat symptoms. He looked at his watch.
"It is now ten o'clock. You may take another dose of the nitre, and gargle your throat well with a little of it. Are you warm enough?"
"Yes, thank you. I guess I can sleep now, and you had better go to bed too. Good night!"
"Good night, George. You'll be better to-morrow."
And placing a few billets in the cylinder, La Salle rolled himself up in his heavy coat, drew off his long moccason boots, and placing his stockinged feet where the heat of the fire would dry the insensible perspiration they had gathered during the day, he prepared for a short nap.
"Regnie, keep up the fire for a couple of hours, and then call me, for it grows cold, and we must not let George get chilled again, on any account."
About one, La Salle awoke to find Regnie still awake, and keeping up a good fire, although he used the wood but sparingly. The cold had evidently increased, and La Salle drew on his boots, which had improved much in drying. As Regnar turned to his berth, he said,—
"It cold to-night, colder to-morrow, and warm to-morrow night. Then we be in the open Gulf, and the warm winds will come again."
George slept but restlessly; and once more during the night a small dose of the sirup was administered. About three o'clock, Peter awoke, and said,—
"Why no let Peter watch? No doctor, but keep good fire and let you sleep."
"Well, Peter," said La Salle, "I shall be glad to rest; but you must be careful of the wood, and put in as little as will keep up a blaze, for we have not a great deal, and that not of a very good kind."
"Me know no woods here, and Peter will not waste any, you better b'lieve."
Laying his hand on George's head, he felt a slight moisture; and covering him still more closely, he lay down with a hopeful heart, and, wearied in mind and body, slept until nearly nine the next morning.
Regnar was broiling the dismembered body of a goose at the rude grate, and at that moment was arranging on a slender spit alternate portions of the heart, liver, and fat of the bird. After being seasoned with salt, this was rapidly rotated in front of the fire by Peter, who watched with much interest the preparation of three similar sticks.
La Salle sprang to his feet, and first hastened to Waring, who professed himself cured, and wanted to get up.
"No, George; you must lie abed to-day, and accept a cup of very weak coffee and some bread. I shall let you eat nothing. You see," he continued, as the boy broke into a fit of coughing, "that the cold has not left you yet, and I have no doubt you feel some pain in your chest now."
"Yes, it has gone into my lungs a little, but will wear off soon, I guess. It always does at home."
"Well, we can't risk anything here; so I'll get your coffee, and after breakfast, if Peter will get me a little pitch off the branches, I'll make something for your cough."
The birds were well cooked and quite appetizing; and as he rose Peter handed La Salle a small handful of Canada balsam, which in the shape of small tears clung to many of the larger branches on the floor.
"That enough? If not, Peter get more."
"That will do—thank you, Peter."
But the eye of the speaker caught a look directed by Regnar at the roof of the hut, from whence exuded a few drops of a blacker resin.
"Yes, I see Stockholm tar; that will help the cure much."
Placing the two in an iron spoon, rudely made from a fragment of the decoys, they were gently melted, and a small quantity of sugar added, with enough powdered biscuit to enable the mass to be rolled into little balls.
"You must chew these and swallow the tar-water thus formed, and finally the resins themselves, and you will find your cough much loosened by to-morrow."
"Sposum you no want boat-hook, me make draw-knife of him. He steel, I s'pose."
"Yes, Peter. The spike is very fine steel, I believe, as I told the blacksmith I wanted it light and sharp. If you want it you can have it; that is, if you feel sure you can make a knife."
"Mos' all Ingin make own knife. You never see Ingin knife in store. In old time old men say Ingin make work-knife, war-knife, arrow-head, axe, all ting he want when can't buy. Me make best knife in tribe 'fore me lose arm. Some one must strike for me, an' I turn iron now."
Going out, he brought in several fragments of hard wood, and the spike or head of the boat-hook. Making a hot fire, he placed the spike therein, and sinking the edge of an axe in one of the decoys, got Regnar to strike for him.
"Now no strike hard—strike quick and heasy, right that place every time;" and taking the glowing iron from the fire, he laid it on the light anvil.
It was wonderful to see how, like one who uses a trip-hammer, he drew the iron under the rapidly-plied axe, until the round spike was a narrow, thin blade about six inches in length. Then shifting the angle of the iron a little, he directed Regnar how to beat down one side to an edge, and lastly how to curve the flat of the blade a little at the point, or rather end. Then, producing several small pieces of lime and sandstone, found among the earth kept in the boats, for the use of snow-blind gunners, he proceeded to rub down the edge to something like fitness for use.
After this he carefully tempered the blade, and with a penknife cut out a handle, in which he inserted it, lashing the two firmly together with twine made from one of the cod-lines. Long and patient labor with his few pebbles, and the leather of his cowhide boots, brought the waghon at length to a keen, smooth edge; and great was Peter's joy when he again carried at his belt a tool so indispensable to the Indian hunter and workman.
That day, the fourth of their drift, brought little change in their position—the icebergs frozen together, were drifting, if at all, in one vast body. Towards night a north-west wind sprang up, and the thermometer, had the party possessed such an instrument, would probably have registered at least -10 deg.. A watch was kept all night to keep the fire replenished, and all the appliances used to keep out the cold air, and economize heat, scarcely kept the temperature up as high as +32 deg., the freezing point of water.
Waring was kept carefully covered up, and professed to suffer nothing from cold, having all the extra clothing of the party. It was luckily the last cold snap of the season, and with the sunrise of the next day, Sunday, the fifth day of their voyaging, the wind had given place to a calm, although cold, clear, bracing atmosphere.
After the usual ablutions, which were never neglected by the party, followed by breakfast, the ice being closely frozen together, a walk to a high berg at the distance of a quarter of a mile was proposed, as it was thought that the course of the ice should bring them in sight at least, of the North Cape of St. Jean. This was generally acceded to by all but Waring, who preferred to remain and keep up the fire.
Taking their weapons, an ice-axe, and a light coil of rope, the three soon arrived, without misadventure, at the foot of an irregular mound of ice, at least fifty feet in height.
THE CHAPEL BELL.—THE FIRST SEAL.—THE NORTH CAPE.—A SNOW-SQUALL.
The way was rough, and not without its dangers, for more than once Peter, who led the file, sprang just in time to save himself, as the treacherous crust above some yawning chasm between two heavy "Pans" crumbled under his feet; and once he fell headlong, clutching at a friendly spur, just in time to escape tumbling among a lot of jagged and flinty shards of young "crushed ice."
The wind was light at times, coming in puffs and squalls; and although the day was bright, a mist here, snowy white, there crimson with sunbeams, again darkening into purplish blue, and elsewhere of a heavy and leaden obscurity, hung over the greater part of the sky, and made it a doubtful task to prognosticate, with any degree of certainty, the state of the weather for even an hour in advance.
As they proceeded, a strangely solemn, though faint and distant, sound broke the oppressive silence. The three halted and listened intently. Again, low as the moan of the dying surges on a distant bar, the sound came thrilling over the icy sea to the southward, and each face flushed with a new hope of speedy release from their wild prison-house.
"Hark!" said Orloff, raising his hand. "I hear the sound of a church bell. We must be near the land."
"It must be from the tower of the Tignish Chapel, then," said La Salle, "for no other land save the North Cape lies in our course."
Again a blast came whistling among the defiles, and again a calm succeeded. All listened in breathless silence, and again the wished-for sound which spoke of the proximity of human society and Christian worship, came pealing across the desolate wastes, deserted of everything having life, and impressing the fancy of the beholder as does the desolation of long-forgotten cities, or the shattered marbles of the unremembered dead.
"I know that place. That bell Tignish Chapel. Two year ago I camp on Tignish Lun. Make basket, catch trout, shoot flover. Go hevery Sunday to mass,—that same place,—take squaw, papoose, boy, girl, all folks. Know that bell, sure. To-day Sunday, and folks going into chapel."
"He must be right," said La Salle, "but we are now near the berg, and from its top we shall see if we are indeed near the North Cape. Make haste, Peter; perhaps we may get near enough to-day to make our way to the shore."
A broad, level floe was all that intervened between the party and the berg which they sought. Running across it; although with some little difficulty, for the ice was covered with slush concealed by a crust insufficient to bear the weight of a man, they soon reached the berg. It was evidently of Arctic origin, for it was much larger than any of the many "pinnacles" in sight. It was composed of ice, which, wherever the snow had failed to lodge, appeared hard, transparent, and prismatic in the rays of the sun. Its sides were steep and precipitous, and at first the members of the party began to fear that they should be unable to mount the steep escarpment of eight or ten feet high, which formed its base, which was further defended by a moat of mingled sludge and rounded fragments, cemented by young ice.
Had the opposite bank been attainable, any of the party would have readily leaped across, trusting to their speed to save themselves from immersion among the rolling fragments; but no one cared to risk the treacherous footing beneath that inaccessible wall.
"I'm afraid we shall have to go back to our own lookout, and trust to a shift of the ice," said La Salle. "Can you think of any way of climbing that pinnacle, Peter?"
"No way do that, unless cut a way into that hice, and then no safe place to stan' on, sartain, this time," answered the Indian.
"Let me have that rope," said Regnar, quietly.
Taking the light Manilla painter, he proceeded to form a large loop, and grasping it near the running knot, laid half a dozen turns across his hand. Then swinging the coil around his head, he launched the rope at a group of jagged points, which projected just above the edge of the lowest part of the cliff. Again and again the noose came back unreeved, and again and again the patient boy, with rare strength and skill, flung the ample noose over the slippery spires of ice. At last, however, success rewarded his efforts, and a strong pull, with the united weight of all three, failed to start the closely-drawn bowline. Taking the axe and bearing the most of his weight on the cord, Regnar crossed the bending surface and shifting fragments, and finding a precarious footing on the berg, wound the rope around his left arm, and with the right cut steps into the brittle ice-wall.
In a few moments he ascended the cliff, and the others, leaving their guns behind them, found little difficulty in following him. Leaving the rope still fast, the three ascended the berg, which rose high above the surrounding ice. Their first look was to the southward. For a moment the distance and the ever-present snow deceived them; but the sun came from behind a cloud, and they saw, afar off, the red sandstone face of the snow-covered cliffs of the North Cape.
"They are now about twelve miles distant, and, as I judge, there can be but little open water between us and the shore. Let us hasten back and get the boat ready, for if this wind only holds, and no snow or rain comes on, we shall soon be able to reach the shore."
At that moment something fell with a splash into a small, partially open pool, on the farther side of the berg, and all saw a huge form disappear under the surface. Each started, felt mechanically for his weapons, and in brief monosyllables of Esquimaux, Micmac, and English, ejaculated the name of the animal whose presence none had even suspected.
"Ussuk!" whispered Regnar.
"Nashquan," murmured Peter.
"A seal," said La Salle.
Orloff slid down the berg, caught the firmly fastened cord, swung himself over the ice-foot, skipped lightly over the yielding fragments, seized his gun, and returned in almost less time than it takes to describe his movements. The seal, a huge male, had come to the surface among the floating fragments at the farther side of the pool, some fifty yards away, and now lay with his round head, protruding eyes, and stiff bristles, strikingly expressing anger, fear, and curiosity—the last predominating. Regnar threw his gun to his shoulder.
"What size shot have you?" said La Salle, laying his hand on his shoulder.
"Two buckshot cartridge,—heavy enough for him. If he were old 'hood' now! Look! I show you something."
The lad took deliberate aim, and then, with the full force of his capacious lungs, gave a sharp, shrill whistle, which almost deafened his companions, and was re-echoed from the icy walls on the farther side of the pool, in piercing reverberations.
Surprised and affrighted by the unusual sound, the huge ussuk rose half his length above the water, and looked around him. The icy cliffs echoed the crashing volley, as both barrels poured forth their deadly hail almost in unison, and the huge animal settled down amid incarnadined waters and ice crimsoned with his life-blood, shot to death through the brain so skilfully that scarce a struggle or a tremor bore witness that the principle of life had departed.
Descending the berg, a small fragment of ice capable of bearing a man was found, and Regnar, taking the end of his line, stepped upon it, and with his gunstock paddled off to the dead seal, and affixing the line to one of its flippers, pulled himself ashore, and joined the others in towing the game to the berg. Landing it on a little shelf, La Salle and Peter began to speculate as to how the huge carcass, which must have weighed five hundred pounds, could be hauled over the berg, and safely landed. Regnar laughed at the idea.
"We want not the meat—only the skin, blubber, and liver. Why not skin here? Save much work for nothin'. Here, Peter, give me knife."
Peter drew the long blade from his belt, and Regnar making a single incision from chin to tail, the body seemed fairly to roll out of the thick, soft blubber coat which adhered to the skin. In less than two minutes Regnar had finished what La Salle had no doubt would take at least a good half hour. With equal deftness the liver was extracted, and a few pounds of meat taken from the flanks.
Fastening the whole to the line, it was drawn to the top of the berg, and thence down the slope to the rude stairs. As the weight was nearly half that of a man, Regnar merely placed the bight of the rope around the object on which it had caught. Its shape excited curiosity, and a few strokes of the axe cleared off its covering of ice.
"This ice from Greenland," said Regnar. "Here is the stone the Inuit uses for pots—what you call soapstone."
"Well, I hope we shall not need it," said La Salle, "for the North Cape is now only ten miles away, and it is not yet noon. I want the blubber for fuel, or I would not waste time with this skin even."
"We shall have all we want to get back to George. See how the clouds close in. Plenty snow right away now. Come, Peter, get across quick."
La Salle groaned in spirit, as, from the berg which he had reascended, he saw the distant red ledges shut out from view, and marked the first scattering flakes fall silently through the now calm atmosphere. Looking down, he saw that Peter and Regnar had got safely across the chasm, and almost despairing of the fate of his party, he followed down the rude steps, and across the treacherous bridge.
Letting the line slacken a little, Regnar gave a deft whirl, which cast off the bight from the rock, and the party, dragging behind them their prize, retraced their path amid what soon became a blinding snow-squall. Luckily their track had been through deep snow, and therefore not easily covered up; for when they reached their own island of refuge, they could see scarce a rod in any direction.
Regnar dragged his prize to the little enclosure, and, pointing to the snow-flake, said,—
"Soon they grow larger, softer, then turn to rain. Then this skin and our boat must cover us, for the snow-water will spoil our house."
At that moment a flaw from the westward bore on its wings a repetition of the sounds they had heard in the morning, but nearer and more distinct than before. Heavily, measured, and mournfully, came the tones of the great bell, as the storm-vapors shut down closer, and the west wind blew fiercer across the icebound sea.
"They toll for the dead," said Regnar.
THE PACK OPENS.—MYSTERIOUS MURMURS.—LOVE SCENES AND SOUNDS.
All day long the snow fell heavily, and although the wind blew with no great violence, it was evidently increasing their drift eastward into the open Gulf. At night the temperature was perceptibly higher, and as they gathered around the light of the rude brazier in the centre of their ice-cave, each for the first time opened his heavy outer clothing, and felt the cool zephyrs that, from time to time, found their way through the door curtain, to be a welcome visitant.
The fire had melted a deep hollow in the centre, which was naturally the lowest part of the floor, and Peter quietly arose, and bringing in the axe, cut a narrow but deep gutter out through the doorway. Reverently that night the little group bowed their heads as Waring, with his sweet voice, led the singing of one of the old familiar hymns, dear alike to Churchman and Dissenter, and La Salle prayed that the hand of the Father might be with them in their coming trials.
For already the boat had received her scanty store of food and fuel, their weapons stood close at hand, a pile of cooked meats was cooling near the door, and all knew that a few hours might again find them seeking a new shelter, among perils compared to which those already passed, were "trifles light as air."
Heretofore they had been exposed to no wide sweep of seas, and had never felt the solid ice beneath them rolling and plunging through mountainous surges, or dashed in terrible collision against its companions of the dismembered ice-pack. Now every mile which they drifted increased the sweep of the sea, and in the centre of the wide Gulf, the southerly winds would scarcely fail to open, at least, the outer sections of the floes.
As they concluded their brief Sabbath exercises, La Salle drew from his vest pocket a stump of lead pencil, and seemed at a loss for something on which to write.
"Have any of you a piece of paper?" he asked.
All answered in the negative; but a thought seemed to strike him, and drawing from an inner pocket a much crumpled letter, he opened it, and seemed to consider. The envelope was worn out, but had preserved the closely-written note paper within; and taking a single page, he spread it on his gunstock, and, in broad-lined, coarsely-made letters, drew up the following record of their present position and prospects:—
"OFF CAPE NORTH, SUNDAY, April 15, 186—.
"TO WHOEVER MAY FIND THIS: This morning the undersigned, with George Waring, Peter Mitchell, and Regnar Orloff, all well, were twelve miles north-east of Cape North, but a snow storm prevented an attempt to land. Knowing that, with the presently impending southerly storm, we may have to leave our present refuge, I hereby assure those who may find this of our present safety, and desire them to forward this to the office of the Controller of Customs at Halifax, or St. John.
(Signed) "CHARLES LA SALLE."
"Regnie, please write this in French on the other side—will you?" said the writer, as he finished.
Orloff took the page, and turning it over, did as requested; but as he finished signing his own name, he let the pencil drop from his fingers, and for a moment found himself incapable of movement or expression. Controlling himself with an effort, he folded the note neatly, and returned it, with the pencil, to La Salle.
"Who is your fair correspondent, M. La Salle?" said he, in French.
La Salle, with flushed face and eyes lighted up with due resentment of the other's curiosity, answered,—
"You seem to have read for yourself."
Orloff's manner changed at once.
"A thousand pardons, monsieur, but I have a good reason for asking the lady's name."
"Pauline H. Randall, as you may see for yourself," was the quiet reply.
"One more question, sir. Do you know her middle name?"
"I did, but cannot exactly recall it, as she never uses it in full, and I have forgotten whether it is Hobel or Hubel; that it is one of the two, I am pretty certain."
A glance of mingled expression shot from the eyes of Orloff, but he restrained himself with a visible effort, and he became again the somewhat phlegmatic pilot of the Gulf shore.
"Thank you, M. La Salle. You shall know more at a fitting season."
Taking one of Waring's cartridge cases, La Salle forced the record into its narrow chamber, and selecting a small strip of pine,—a part of the thin side of his crushed float,—he stopped the cartridge with a tightly-fitting wad, and fastened it to the board with a piece of stout cord. On the white board he printed, in large letters, "Read the contents of the case;" and going out, he placed it firmly upright on the summit of the berg.
At twelve that night the rain fell fast, the wind blew steadily from the southward, and the undulations of the ice, from time to time, told that, although safe in the very heart of the pack, yet still the field had already resolved itself into its component parts. Towards midnight all fell asleep, being satisfied that no immediate danger threatened them; but at about half an hour before daybreak, Waring awoke, and placed a few blocks on the smoldering embers. As he waited for them to burst into a flame, he heard the air filled with confused murmurings, unlike any sounds that he had previously experienced. Gradually they appeared to draw nearer, to sound from all sides, to fill the air overhead, and even at last to ascend from the depths below. Strangely sweet, yet sadly plaintive, they at once charmed and terrified the poor boy, weak from his recent illness, and worn with the anxieties of his situation.
At last Regnar awoke, and to him Waring applied for an explanation of the strange sounds. Orloff listened attentively, and answered with paling cheeks,—
"Such are the melodies which my people say that the sad Necker sings by the lonely river, when he bemoans his lot, in that Christ died not for him. Doubtless the sea has its water spirits, and they now surround our island of ice."
Waring, unskilled in the folk-lore of Dane, Swede, and German, answered,—
"It can't be that. It must be that some vessel is near us, or there is a crew of wrecked sealers around us on the ice. Ah, Peter, are you thinking of getting up. Listen to those sounds, and tell us what they are—will you?"
Peter listened gravely and attentively.
"I not know that noise, brother. I know nearly all the cries of bird and beast, and often I sleep all 'lone in the woods; hear howl, hear fox, hear frog, hear everyting. Sometime I tink I know that noise; then I tink I not know him at all. Get La Salle awake; ask him—he know."
La Salle slept but lightly whenever there was need of vigil, and the last words had fallen on his awakening ears.
"What's the matter, Peter?" said he.
"We hear many strange noise. I not know, George not know, Regnie not know, none of us know. There it come again. What you call that?"
La Salle listened a moment, went to the door, and then beckoned to his companions to follow. The rain fell heavily, but the wind came warm and gently from the balmy south, and no rude blast shrieked and sighed amid the ice-peaks. The strange sounds were sweeter, louder, and apparently nearer than before. Soft and sad as the strains of the disconsolate Necker, plaintive as the mournings of men without hope, wild as the cries of the midnight forest, and the sighings of wind-tossed branches. La Salle laughed a low, glad laugh.
"You may sleep soundly," said he; "the coots and ducks have come northward, and the spring is here at last. To-morrow will bring us sport to repletion, for the sounds you hear are the love-songs of the sea-birds, whose voices, however harsh, grow sweet when the sun brings back again the season of love and flowers."
When the morn came, unheralded by sunbeams, and shrouded by leaden rain-clouds, a veil of mist covered the vast ice-field, of which no two masses retained their former proximity. A network of narrow channels opened and closed continually among the dripping bergs, from whose sides flashed the frequent cascade, and glimmered the shimmering avalanche of dislodged snow. Amid this ever-shifting panorama, giving it life and beauty, covering pool and channel with merry, restless knots of diving, feeding, coquetting, quarreling swimmers, relieving the colorless ice with groups of jetty velvet and scoter ducks, gray and white-winged coots, crested mergansers in their gorgeous spring plumage, and fat, lazy black ducks, with Lilliputian blue and green winged teal, filling the air with the whirr of swift pinions, and the ceaseless murmur of the mating myriads, rested from their long northward journey, a host such as mortal eye hath seldom beheld, and which it hath fallen to the lot of few sportsmen to witness and enjoy.
"I kill many birds on hice, in quetan, among sedge out on the bay, but I never see such sight. I never think so many birds in the world before," said Peter, as he loaded his double-barrel.
"I been up Ivuctoke Inlet, on Greenland coast; down Disco saw great many bird, but nothing like this," muttered Regnar.
"It is almost too bad to kill any of these lovely creatures," said George, whose loving nature drank in the full beauty of the scene; "can't we do without them?"
"We have only six birds, and some seal fat, meat, and liver. If it closes the ice again we shall soon be short of food. So we'll get out our floating decoys to leeward, and see what we can do to replenish our larder."
La Salle's plan was duly carried out. A couple of flocks of floating decoys were anchored to a protruding spur of ice, and for an hour or so the four had their fill of slaughter. Each was limited to three cartridges apiece, and no one would fire except at an unusually large flock. Peter brought down a goose with each barrel, and six brent with his third shot; Regnar killed nine black duck with one barrel, five velvet ducks with another, and six teal with the third. Waring unexpectedly had a shot at a flock of Phalapores, and secured twelve of these curious birds; but his third shot at a solitary goose failed, owing to a defective cap. La Salle, after a single shot which killed a brace of brent, was about to reload, and had just poured in a charge of powder, when he suddenly crouched behind a hummock, and motioned to the others to follow his example; then, pointing to a small lead just opening between two bergs about two hundred yards away, he called the attention of his companions to an enormous seal, even larger than their victim of the day before.
The new-comer was a prodigious "hooded" seal, and the loose skin which enveloped his head was distended with air, and gave forth a hollow, barrel-like sound, whenever, raising himself above the waves, he came down with a heavy splash upon the surface. His aspect was savage and ferocious, and he seemed looking for some object on which to wreak his rancor; for from time to time he sent forth a savage cry, far hoarser and prolonged than the whining bark which these animals usually utter.
"He's an ole male. He dreadful angry, and I s'pect some other one near here. Yes, there he comes;" and Regnar pointed to another opening between two massive floes, from whence, sounding a valorous defiance to his challenger, emerged a second seal, even larger than the first. With mutual animosity they darted towards each other, and the next moment were engaged in a terrific combat.
So quick were their evolutions as they fought, now above and now below the surface of the water, that the eye could scarcely distinguish which, for the moment, had a temporary advantage, although one was much darker in hue, and more beautifully marked than the other. They sprang into the air, they dived beneath the surface, they threw their heavy bodies against each other, they tore each other with teeth and claws, and the water was covered with bloody foam.
La Salle watched the fray with divided interest. It was a new and interesting lesson in natural history, and he wanted the huge skins and blubber of the combatants, who fought on unconscious of their hidden audience, and the deep interest taken in their movements. Half a dozen times La Salle had raised his huge gun to fire, and lowered it again, unable to get a sure aim, so sudden were the changes of the conflict. At last, wearied but unconquered, both lay almost motionless upon the water, tearing at each other's throats like bull-dogs who have fought to mutual exhaustion.
As his heavy weapon settled into deadly aim, Regnar touched La Salle's shoulder. "No shot heavy enough for those fellows; must have bullet. That hood turn anything but rifle-ball."
By the side of the hummock lay a short piece of pine board, once the movable thwart of the float. La Salle beckoned to Peter. "Make me out of this a stout, sharp-headed arrow, with a heavy shaft." Peter doubtfully drew his waghon and split off a piece, which in about a minute was whittled into a short, stout arrow, headed only with a wooden point, the largest diameter of which fitted pretty accurately to the bore of the heavy piece. La Salle, meanwhile, had drawn his shot, and motioning to Peter to load a barrel of his own gun in like manner, turned to watch the waning conflict, which, notwithstanding the exhaustion of the combatants, had evidently produced little more damage than a few savage flesh wounds.
In another moment Peter had fitted another arrow to his own gun, and awaited the word. Regnar whistled sharp and shrill, the combatants suddenly separated, and each, rising until his flippers showed above the surface, looked on all sides for the source of this sudden interruption. At once both guns roared in unison, a distance of scarce twenty yards intervening between the marksmen and their prey. Peter's mark, the largest and most beautiful of the two, fell dead, with its head transfixed with the arrow, which waved feebly above the crimsoned surface, as the huge body trembled with the throes of dissolution. La Salle's aim was less sure, and the novel missile tore through the neck, just below the ear. A fountain of blood sprang ten feet into the air as the dying animal fell back, spurning the bloody pool with tail and flippers; but the mighty heart sent forth its wasted life-tide, until its current was exhausted and the powerful "old hood" was like his whilom rival—a lifeless mass of inert flesh.
"Well, I never see such ting shoot before. I use duck shot, goose shot, sometime nails, and sometime little stones, and once in woods I kill gleat bear with junk of lead: but I never shoot arrow before." Thus said Peter, wondering at his own achievement.
Waring had noted with great curiosity the effect of the new missile. "Where did you learn that, Charley? To think that a piece of soft wood should kill such huge animals!"
La Salle had hastened to launch the boat, but stopped to answer a question in which all seemed to take an interest. "About three hundred years ago, Captain John Hawkins, a stout skipper of Devon, and one of those old sea-dogs who helped to conquer the great Spanish Armada, had these arrows, which he called 'sprights,' to distinguish them from those still used with the English longbow, made in large quantities, to be used in the muskets of his men. He claimed that they passed through and through the bulwarks of the Spanish ships, and highly commended them to his contemporaries. I should prefer bullets myself, but have no doubt that they attain a great range, and have, before this, driven a piece of soft pine nearly five inches into a hard spruce post. I should feel perfectly safe in meeting a bear or wolf with no other missile in my gun."
Regnar jumped into the boat, and the two pushed off and secured the seals, both of which were very fat, but covered with blood, and much cut about the head and neck. Securing them with a rope, they returned to the shore, and with some difficulty hauled them out upon the berg, where Peter and Regnar hastened to skin them, and preserve such portions of the meat as they required. The heads were also split to procure the brains, and the large sinews extracted, after which the bodies were consigned to the sea, and at once sank down until they were lost from sight in the depths of the Gulf.